Last weekend, I watched a handful of animated films in preparation for a feature project we're undertaking at Carse and Waterman. I watched about six all together, but three of them in particular, stood out when it came to their design. Just to be clear, my opinions below are focused around on character design, set design and style, not the film as an overall piece. I enjoyed all the films I watched for a variety of reasons, but my purpose in writing this is to ask questions and criticise. So let's dive right in with the first film.

The first film I want to talk about is Frankenweenie, Tim Burton's ‘children's horror’ film for Disney with spectacular character and puppet designs by Manchester's great animation veterans, Mackinnon and Saunders.

 

The Armature created for Sparky, by Mackinnon and Saunders Source: Stop motion geek

The Armature created for Sparky, by Mackinnon and Saunders

Source: Stop motion geek

Burton appears to be juxtaposing the film’s paranormal events of ‘pet-reanimation’ with a set design choice that comes across as almost completely normal and free of his signature german expressionism style. This notable choice led to Vincent's home and street looking like they could have been real, so much so, that if an actor had walked down the road, I wouldn’t have battered an eyelid.

A set that could be from a 60s live action film. Source: Frankenweenie

A set that could be from a 60s live action film.

Source: Frankenweenie

Tim has often carried his style into live action projects, so to almost give it up entirely on an animated project seems odd and almost certainly had to have been done to emphasise the weirdness of the films events. After all, it'd be no big deal if a dog was reanimated in the world of the Corpse Bride or even Sleepy Hollow, because both are designed to look very creepy, but set the same events in a peaceful suburban street and suddenly, it's WEIRD!  

If that choice wasn't odd enough, Burton went a step further by mismatching the set design with his stop motion characters. Only the pet cemetery and Victor’s lab showed any signs of remotely matching the characters; who were mostly designed in his usual horror style. I say mostly because whilst Victor and his family were very 'standard' in design, some of the secondary character were outright creepy looking, without any warranty to be that way. 

A creepy looking school kid. Source: Frankenweenie 

A creepy looking school kid.

Source: Frankenweenie 

So what we ended up with was a cast of half-creepy, half not, characters; playing out a children’s horror script on a live-action set looking backdrop. The final result was 'odd'. Because the houses looked real, Victor and his family looked actors walking around wearing big masks. Then a character called Edgar would show up in the house and look completely out of place in the environment, making you think: "Does Victor's Mum not think his friend looks a little... unwell?!".

Very few of the supporting cast contained designs that were consistent with Victor or the set design! The whole class looked like they could have been from Henry Selick's classic 'Nightmare before Christmas', whilst Victor's parents looked like they belonged in Burton's more middle-of-the-road film 'The Corpse Bride'.

Victor looking 'normal' next to his creepy looking class mates. Source: Frankenweenie

Victor looking 'normal' next to his creepy looking class mates.

Source: Frankenweenie

A final nail in the coffin of the film's design was the black and white colour grade. Colour can say a lot about the tone and style of a film, and can often help tie mismatched aspects of design together. Well Burton chucked this out of the boat as well, leaving us with a grey platform that didn't help a thing. He didn’t even light anything in a particularly interesting way (I was hoping for noir lighting). If anything, it initially made the film hard to watch.

A look at Frankenweenie in colour. source: The Art of Frankenweenie 

A look at Frankenweenie in colour.

source: The Art of Frankenweenie 

I left this film wondering if Burton had made a mistake or if I was just missing the point. The film was very enjoyable none the less and I liked a lot of things about it, regardless of its design choices. It got me thinking, however, about what changes I might make to the film. Should this film have been in vibrant colour? Would it have been better with an exaggerated set design like a lot of Burton's other films? Should Victor and his family have been as odd looking as some of their supporting cast members? And could this film have been made in CG? 

I'm going to continue this topic with some of the other films I watched, in my next blog. 

Thoughts by

Gary